Years of watching guys and gals leave the military, contemplating a pending separation, entering into retirement myself, and continuing to watch others leave the armed forces, I have observed a common factor in many – not all but many service members as they leave the military: now what do I do? This isn’t so much a question about finding employment as it is about having a purpose in life.
Whether you did one year and got out for a medical reason or retired after 30 years of military service, one thing is for certain and that is at some point in time when we joined the military (regardless of which branch) we did so for specific reasons, among them were probably to be the best our country has to offer; the pride of belonging to a unique group of citizens, to walk among the civilian population with a sense of pride and a hint of arrogance knowing we wore one of our nation’s uniforms and answered her call; we served our country as ambassadors in green and made our families and friends back home proud. There’s no slogan for going to college, but the military has some of the most motivating: “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” “Be All You Can Be.” “It’s Not Just A Job, It’s An Adventure.” “Born Ready.” And even the Air Force’s simple “Aim High” encourages potential recruits to set their goals high and work to achieve them.
But now what? Entering the civilian world there is the risk of falling into a monotonous routine. Instead of walking to work a hundred or so yards away you now have to fight traffic to make it to a job you may or may not hate. You can’t tell those vulgar, inappropriate, yet hilariously funny jokes to your friends anymore. Coworkers look at you with disdain if you put a fat dip into your lip while they make their way to the designated smoking area. You’re no longer traveling to exotic places where tobacco and sexy magazines are acceptable forms of currency among each other and the local population.
You may have loved your time in the military, you may have hated your time in the military, but one thing was for sure: you had a purpose. Whether you were an infantryman attacking a hill or clearing a room, or the admin guy making sure everyone was getting paid you had a purpose. Whether you were a motor-t mechanic turning wrenches, or the engineer constructing a latrine you had a purpose. Even if you had a job that sucked and you hated it, you knew what your mission was and you were not alone in accomplishing it.
But now you’re in the civilian world with no mission, no comrades, no sense of purpose going through the daily grind. Every day you ask yourself, “is anything I’m doing making a difference?” This trap is easy to fall into and you can quickly find yourself feeling alone and in a state of depression which can just as easily spiral out of control until you find yourself in a dire life or death situation.
If making a difference is what you wanted to do when you joined, nothing is stopping you from making a difference now. Find something your passionate about and immerse yourself in it. And how does one go about discovering that? Ask yourself what do I really want to do? What is the one thing that every day I can say I look forward to doing that; I look forward to putting my soul into that.
Sure, you may have a job that pays the bills, but that job will not define who you are (unless it is in fact a job that defines who you are). Many service members find their calling in civil service as firefighters, police officers, EMT’s, paramedic’s, etc. These careers offer a few attributes very similar to the military. First, there is a structure with a chain of command. There are SOP’s (standard operating procedures) to follow, uniforms, standing out as guardians of the local community. Second, they are serving people, the same way they served a nation. Third, there is the team work and camaraderie aspect that many of us miss when we leave the military and is easy to find in civil service.
Others have found great joy in teaching and coaching sports. Teachers are some of our most underappreciated hero’s whose sacrifice is truly only recognized years later when we can apply what we were taught to the real world. Sports coaches are to players much more than some who play a game. They are father and mother figures, they fill big brother and big sister roles, they are mentors to those who need mentoring, and the lessons they teach – teamwork, leadership, humility, are the trademarks of role models.
For some they’re calling, or purpose is in the art of bringing others joy – perhaps through their cooking, performing arts, helping others heal through art therapy. Perhaps their purpose is simply making someone or something’s life a little bit happier, like the person who volunteers at the local animal shelter feeding, walking, and playing with the animals. And others have made raising a family their purpose. You could be working from home as a customer service representative for a phone company and imagine you are the person on the other end of the line; what kind of service would you want? I’m sure there have been times when you received outstanding service for something that seems so insignificant as a question about your phone service, but you know when you have gotten great service and you want the person who helped you to know how much their assistance was appreciated.
Regardless of what we choose to do after the military the activities mentioned about all share some common attributes: service, sacrifice, and leadership. Whatever you decide to become, teacher, coach, artist, be it and be it well. In the words of Saint Francis de Sales, do the ordinary extraordinarily well.
Shortly before I retired I had a part time gig as a deckhand on a ferry in North Carolina. I loved that job, and every morning I was there at least 30 minutes before the captain, polishing the brass, wiping the dew from the seats, checking the ropes, hosing down salt and sand that accumulated overnight. Here I was, 40 years old busting my hump on an island ferry and I loved every minute of it. The captains would joke with each other about me and say, “You know how those new deck hands are, full of piss and vinegar, give him a couple weeks.” And every day I worked I went through the same routine, and every evening I’d hose down the sand and salt that accumulated throughout the day, check the ropes, polish the brass, take out the trash, etc. My reward was not in my pay, my reward was the smiles of the people who road our vessel that day, the people who slid me a couple extra bucks because of my service to them, the folks who wanted to take their picture with me as a souvenir of their trip on our vessel.
Even now, as I sit here in Eastern Europe writing these articles I find great purpose in doing research and offering health and fitness advice to those who want to improve themselves but simply do not know where to begin. I chose to become a personal trainer and nutritionist in the hope that I will be able to help my fellow veterans ween themselves off the drugs they have been prescribed and show them they can work on themselves without subduing one issue while creating another.
So, if you are finding yourself a little lost or down in the dumps, even if it has been years since you separated from the service, ask yourself: what is my purpose? What is it that I am going to pour my soul into that will bring me great joy.